Skincare Chemistry: All You Need to Know about pH

This post is by reader request.  One of my favorite chemistry topics!  Let’s jump right in.  I won’t bore you with all the details, just some basic chemistry.

pH is simple.  It’s a way of measuring how acidic or alkaline (also known as basic) a substance is.  This is done by measuring how much H+, hydrogen ion, is present in a solution.

When levels of H+ are low, you have a basic or alkaline substance.  When levels of H+ are high, you have an acidic substance.  Pure water is neither acidic nor alkaline; it’s neutral. A pH of 7 is neutral and it’s the midpoint of the scale.  As you get farther from the midpoint, the substance becomes more acidic as the numbers go down and more alkaline (basic) as the numbers go up.

Because of the logarithmic nature of this scale, each change in pH is equivalent to a tenfold change in H+ concentration.  That means that a substance with a pH of 2 is 10 times more acidic than something with a pH of 3, 100 times more acidic than a pH of 4, 1,000 times more acidic than a substance with a pH of 5, and so on.  By the time you reach a pH of 14, the H+ concentration is VERY low, making it extremely basic instead of acidic.  At a pH of 1, the H+ concentration is exceedingly high and so you have something extremely acidic.

That’s all you really need to know for this post.  Here’s a graphic for all my visual learners :)

ph scale 1

So what does this have to do with skincare, right?

“pH balanced”

It’s true that the skin (and hair too) is naturally acidic, usually with a pH between 4 and 6.  The outer layer where the pH of skin is fairly low is often called the “acid mantle.”  When this layer of the skin stays within its proper acidic pH range, it prevents dryness and weaknesses in the skin where bacteria can enter and cause pimples and stuff.  Of course, you should not use products that are highly acidic on your skin since a very low pH is corrosive and can burn the skin.  At the same time, using extremely alkaline products would be dangerous too due to their caustic nature and ability to dissolve skin (doesn’t sound pleasant, does it?).

Most soaps and products that clean are quite basic.  Using an alkaline product would raise the pH of the outer layer of your skin, likely disrupting the acid mantle.  Most people’s skin can bounce back from this relatively quickly.  In some instances, such as very sensitive or acne-prone skin, the skin might need some help. When I was pregnant and my skin was especially oily and sensitive, I was very aware of pH.  I tried to use as few alkaline products as I could, keeping most of my products neutral or acidic.

If you find that your skin is sensitive to pH, here’s what I recommend (of course, I am not a dermatologist!):

  • Use a cleanser that has a pH of about 8.  You can also consider using a cleanser that is closer to neutral.
  • Use an acidic toner after cleansing to help restore the acid mantle as quickly as possible.
  • Use a neutral or slightly acidic moisturizer.

If your skin is already irritated and dry from problems with pH, avoid all acidic products until you’ve healed up.  Only use very slightly alkaline and neutral products since acid will almost certainly sting and cause more damage and dryness.

In the end, the term “pH balanced” is just a marketing ploy to get you to buy stuff.  Cosmetic companies just assume that you don’t know what it means and that you’ll just buy what they’re selling because it’s “pH balanced.” Now that you know what it is, though, you can make your own stuff that meets your needs.

How to determine pH

The only way to know the pH of something is to test it out with an indicator.  Indicators are substances that change color depending on the pH of its environment.  There are many indicators but the most convenient one is pH paper.  Find a bunch on Amazon here.  You dip pH paper, or hydrion paper, into what you want to test and match up the color to find the corresponding approximate pH range.  They’re okay as far as accuracy goes, good enough for what we need.  Beware though — don’t use litmus paper.  Litmus paper only tells you if something is an acid or a base but it does not give a precise pH value.

If you’re very serious about pH and want very accurate and precise measurements, think about purchasing  a pH meter.  Good ones aren’t cheap.

Reasons to determine pH

When I make soap, pH papers are invaluable because using a soap before it’s ready can cause serious skin irritation, itching, and even burns.  Usually, I’ll put a few drops of water onto the soap, make sure a small amount of soap dissolves, then dip the paper into the very small puddle of water on the bar of soap.  When the pH is between 8 and 10, it’s a usable soap.

Some preservatives are rendered ineffective by pH.  The preservative I usually use, Optiphen, is effective between pH 4 and pH 8.  Lotions and creams I make never go beyond this range so I’m safe.  Check the manufacturer of your favorite preservative to see what the effective pH range is.  Be aware that using preservatives outside the recommended pH range can make them less effective or not work at all.

Ways to lower pH

Most of the time, DIYers want to lower the pH of their products to make them more in line with the pH of the acid mantle.  When adding any of the suggestions listed below, be sure to dilute and add small amounts at a time.  It’s better to add too little and just add more if necessary.  Add a little, test it out.

  • add citric acid — citric acid is commonly used for the sole purpose of lowering pH, not my favorite choice but has some preservative qualities which is nice
  • add vitamin C — vitamin C has some great benefits for skin plus it’s pretty cheap so I prefer using this to lower pH of cleansers and toners
  • add AHA, alpha hydroxy acid — also has good benefits for skin, as I’m sure you’ve seen before.  This is a good choice for older skin and for people who do not spend much time in the sun.  This is also the better choice for creams and lotions, in my opinion.

If you need to raise the pH of your product, sodium hydroxide is usually the choice.  Sometimes you will see sodium hydroxide on an ingredient list.  This is off-putting because sodium hydroxide is lye, with an extremely high pH, and is often used as drain cleaner.  However, it’s usually present just to raise pH.

Final thoughts on pH

pH is important but it’s even more important if your skin is sensitive or prone to breakouts.  I don’t monitor pH very closely because most of my products are close to neutral.  The cleanser I make and use religiously is right around 8, the scrub I prefer is between 4 and 5, and my moisturizer/oil blend is basically neutral.  My skin bounces back quickly from small changes to the acid mantle but if I switch to soap, with a pH of 9 or 10, my skin will inevitably break out.  If you find yourself breaking out a lot or having a lot of redness and irritation, consider lowering the pH of the products you use.

I plan on incorporating an acidic toner into my regimen so keep your eyes open for that recipe coming soon.

This post is pinned to my Homemade Skincare board.  Check it out.  There’s some good stuff pinned there and I’ll be pinning more.

Questions?  Comments?  Email  I always answer and sometimes I post Q&A here on the blog.

Email Question: Alcohol as a Preservative?

This is another fantastic email question.  I love the ones that make me think and even do some research!

I stumbled upon your blog today because I was looking for information regarding a natural preservative. Your blog stated that basically there are none. I know of a company that uses organic grain ethanol as a preservative, and they sell their products worldwide, so i’m guessing this works.
Since you stated that you are a chemistry teacher, would you be able to tell me what percentage I would have to use the ethanol at?
You would have to use ethanol at quite a high percentage for it to be an effective preservative, I would estimate 25% or more.  That would ruin any product I was trying to make, especially a lotion or cream.  Ethanol is also quite drying to skin.
I also asked which brand uses ethanol (which is just alcohol, the same type that gets people drunk) and the reader replied that it was Dr. Bronner’s.  I did a little research and found the ingredients list:
Aqua, Organic Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil*, Organic Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Organic Ethanol*, Organic Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil*, Organic fairDeal Cannabis Sativa (Hemp) Seed Oil, Organic Quillaja Saponaria Extract, Xanthan Gum, Tocopherol, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil
Ethanol is very high up on the ingredient list.  There’s more ethanol than there is avocado oil.  I swear by Dr. Bronner’s castile soap.  It’s amazing but their lotions are not, in my opinion.  On Amazon, you can see that all the critical reviews basically say the same thing: the lotion is runny, smells like alcohol, isn’t very moisturizing.  These would be my main concerns with using alcohol as a preservative.
More questions please!  Email

Email Question: Optiphen

I’m so excited that I have a couple posts lined up that are answering questions I’ve gotten to my email!  I’ve gotten questions from all kinds of places.  I live in a little apartment in Brooklyn, NY so getting emails from people in other faraway countries is so incredibly cool.  If you have any questions or comments, please email me at  I always respond.

Here’s the email question (from Kuwait!!):

I want to make body butter, cream, and lotion…if I want to extend the shelf life over a year, is that possible with Optiphen preservative…if so what is the percentage to use Optiphen preservative?


Optiphen is my choice for preservative because it is paraben- and formaldehyde-free.  Optiphen is best in oil-based formulas.  Optiphen Plus is good for just about any recipe.  Use it at about 1% and don’t use at temperatures higher than 176 degrees F.

A lot of email questions are about preservatives!  Keep ‘em coming!  And keep your eyes open for more email questions in the future.

Homemade Shampoo & Conditioner for Natural Hair

shampoo and conditoner.jpg

I’m growing my hair out a little.  I want a bit of a ‘fro.  I don’t post too much about my hair here but I post occasional photos on Instagram.  Since I cut my hair, I haven’t been too concerned about the products I use.  As long as it looked how I wanted and wasn’t breaking, I was fine with it.  But now that I want to grow it a little, I’m more conscious of its health.  I find that I get the best growth and length retention when I use products that are mostly natural/homemade.

I absolutely love Aubrey Organics shampoo and conditioner.

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But total cost for these 2 items is over $22.  Sometimes I splurge.  Most of the time, I just make shampoo and conditioner.  It costs me $2.50 to make 8 ounces of conditioner and $1.18 to make 8 ounces of shampoo.  And I would say my homemade stuff is pretty good.  I buy the majority of my supplies from Brambleberry.  I also buy a few things here and there from Mountain Rose Herbs.  The more you buy, the cheaper it is.

My only notes on these recipes are:

  1. The shampoo is not foamy and sudsy.  I know that’s a good thing because it means that it’s not sucking all the moisture out of my hair.  But still, there’s something so satisfying about thick lather.  Truthfully, I try to only wash my scalp.  Despite the lack of lather, my scalp is always squeaky clean after using this.
  2. My favorite thing about the shampoo is that it doesn’t dry my hair out and if I’m in a rush, I can use it with no conditioner and my hair still feels soft and supple.  
  3. My favorite thing about the conditioner is that it’s the only homemade conditioner I’ve ever seen that even remotely reminds me of something bought from the store.  I am not a fan of using food in my hair.  I’m not putting mushed up bananas or avocados on my head when there are starving children in the world.  *shrugs*

Okay, I’ve talked enough.  Here are the recipes.

Conditioner (makes 8 ounces)

  • 13 grams conditioning emulsifier (a.k.a. BTMS, see the note on this ingredient below)
  • 45 grams shea butter
  • 75 grams coconut oil
  • 15 grams mango butter
  • 77 grams distilled water or aloe vera juice
  • 3 grams Optiphen (you can skip this if you use it within a month and keep it in the fridge)
  • 30 drops ylang ylang essential oil
  • 15 drops rosemary essential oil
  • 30 drops rosehip seed oil
  • 25 drops lavender essential oil
  1. Melt the conditioning emulsifier, shea butter, coconut oil, mango butter all together.  You can use a double boiler or use a microwave safe bowl and microwave for 30-second increments until JUST melted.
  2. Heat up the water or aloe for about 30 seconds in the microwave.  Add to the oils.  Using an immersion blender, blend until combined.  Stir in your essential oils and Optiphen.  Pour into your container.
  3. Apply to wet hair after shampooing.  Massage in and let it sit for 5 minutes (more if you want, I guess.  I’ve never tried longer than 10 minutes.)  Rinse out thoroughly using cool water.  Style as usual.  Try this recipe for shea mango hair butter for your styling product.  Makes your hair shiny and soft!


  • 68 grams castile soap (any scent you like!)
  • 45 grams shea butter
  • 45 grams coconut oil
  • 57 grams distilled water or aloe vera juice
  • 11 grams conditioning emulsifier (optional!)
  1. Melt the shea butter, coconut oil and emulsifier together in the same way as above.
  2. Heat up the water or aloe for about 30 seconds in the microwave.  Add to oils.  Gently pour in the soap.  Using an immersion blender, blend until combined.  Pour into your container.
  3. Apply to wet scalp.  Massage using the pads of your fingers, not your nails.  Rinse out thoroughly.  Condition if you have time but if not, you’ll be okay!

Note: BTMS stands for behentrimonium methosulfate.  I know sulfates are “bad” but that’s not 100% true.  It’s the soapy sulfates you really want to avoid like sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium sulfates.  BTMS also contains cetyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol, which are about the only 2 alcohols I will use on my hair since they’re fatty alcohols and quite moisturizing.  Lastly, I use BTMS-50, not BTMS-25 but if you do decide to use BTMS-25, I recommend adding cetyl alcohol to the recipe.  I never use BTMS at a percentage higher than 10%.

Check me out on Pinterest!  I pin good stuff, I promise.

3 Ingredient Body Butter Recipe

I love a luxurious, silky body butter.  Usually, I’m big on including water in my recipes because emulsions really contribute to the decadent feeling you get from a cream.  We’re having a brutal winter here in the Northeast so we are requiring much thicker, denser moisturizers.  I tried lotion bars and they were very easy to make, worked really well on my kids but my husband and I don’t find them to be easy or convenient to apply to ourselves.  I might continue to make lotion bars for my girls but make this butter for the grownups.

This butter should be used right after a shower or bath while skin is still damp for best results, although I use it on dry skin too and it’s still great.  I also like to use it as a cuticle butter/hand cream.  As usual, the question is: Does it work on Sasha’s skin?  The answer is yes! If it passes the Sasha test, it’s a definitely keeper and it will go down in my big book of recipes.

Enough chat, here are the percentages:

  • 10% wax
  • 40% liquid oil
  • 50% solid oil/butter

This is the basic recipe. I know I said this is a 3 ingredient recipe in the title. You could easily do this with 3 ingredients. For example: beeswax, jojoba oil, shea butter would be lovely. I, of course, can’t keep things so simple because I’m crazy.  The recipe I used to make 16 ounces is below.

PhotoGrid_1393084560262 (1)

We already used some :)

  • 45 grams beeswax
  • 60 grams apricot kernel oil
  • 15 grams castor oil
  • 40 grams avocado oil
  • 40 grams jojoba oil
  • 27 grams sweet almond oil
  • 150 grams shea butter
  • 77 grams mango butter

I melted everything together in a double boiler, stirring constantly.  Then I poured it into my containers and put them in the freezer until they set.  I put them in the freezer to ensure that they cool as quickly as possible, reducing crystallization which cuts down on the grainy feeling that can sometimes be a problem with shea butter and mango butter recipes.  Don’t forget to take them out before they get too cold though!

Okay so that’s 8 ingredients, which is 5 more than 3.  I struggle to keep it simple with my recipes.   But you could follow the percentages above and customize the recipe however you please.

Some nice essential oils would be great to add too.  Be sure to do that once you’ve melted everything already and have removed the mixture from the heat.


Do you follow my Soap & Lotion board on Pinterest?  Check it out for some great easy ideas.

2 Ways to Enjoy Baked Eggs

Breakfast.  I loathe it.  I really don’t like eating before 11 AM.  I have good reasons for this.

First of all, I have to be at work by 8.  I also have to get 2 little girls ready for daycare and we all have to be out the door before 7 each day.  So, eating is not high up on the priority list for me.  Time is of the essence during our morning routine.

Also, I have been taking a medication for my thyroid for over 10 years now and one of the instructions that goes with the pill is that you can’t eat or drink anything except water for one hour after taking it.  Since it should be taken in the morning, I have to wait an hour for breakfast.  Well, by the time an hour has passed on most mornings, I’m already in the car.

Basically, I’ve trained myself to not eat in the morning.  Even on leisurely weekends, I usually don’t have my first bite until 11 or 12 at the earliest.  I have coffee for breakfast.  I know this isn’t a good habit though.  It’s probably causing me to overeat and slowing my metabolism.  I’m still living that 80/20 paleo life so I’m trying to keep breakfast high-protein and real food only.  No on-the-go muffins over here.  No toaster waffles or cold cereal.  I basically eat eggs everyday.

I don’t even really like eggs.  I was never a huge fan and when I was pregnant with my first child, they were a major aversion for me.  So for me to eat eggs, you know it has to be on point.  I love baked eggs because I can throw the dish in the oven and do other things, like dress my girls, while it cooks.  Usually, I prep the part that needs cooking on the stove the night before, cover it, and put it in the fridge.  The next morning, I can just crack 1 or 2 eggs over it, add salt and pepper or whatever, and bake it.  Baked eggs to the rescue! (Disclaimer: I’m not truly paleo.  I eat dairy and other stuff that would make strict paleos shame me.  But I’m really avoiding grains.  Feel free to leave out whatever you please.)

Cheesy Baked Eggs over Kale

  • 2 cups raw kale, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces (I buy from Trader Joe’s so this part is already done for me)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • New Zealand grass-fed cheddar cheese (TRY IT if you’ve never had it. PLEASE.)
  • 1 Tbsp chives, finely chopped
  • chipotle olive oil <— click this link. It will change your culinary life
  • regular extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 eggs (or 1 if you’re not that hungry)
  1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. In a skillet over medium to medium-high heat, add enough regular olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add the kale, then the shallot and garlic.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Saute, stirring or tossing often, until kale is tender and shallots are becoming translucent.
  3. Turn off the heat and add the balsamic vinegar.  Toss to coat.  Place into a ramekin and GENTLY drizzle chipotle olive oil over it.
  4. Crack 1 or 2 eggs over it.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Grate cheese to your liking over the top.  Place the ramekin on a sheet pan and bake until it’s to your liking.  If you like your eggs a little runny, 10-15 minutes should do it.  If you like your eggs well done, bake for 15-20 minutes.  Sprinkle with chives.  Be careful! It’s hot!


Baby Spinach Tomato-Basil Baked Eggs

This might be my new favorite breakfast.  If you have leftover ground beef or sausage, please use it in this recipe.  So yummy.

  • like half a bag of raw baby spinach (you need about 1/2 cup cooked spinach…why does spinach cook down so much?!)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1-2 Tbsp marinara sauce (I used the tomato-basil from Trader Joe’s)
  • 1 Tbsp whole-milk ricotta (optional)
  • Parmesan cheese
  • 1 or 2 eggs, depending on how hungry you are
  • 1/4 cup cooked ground beef or sausage (optional)
  1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Over medium heat, coat the bottom of a skillet with olive oil.  Add spinach and garlic.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cook, tossing often, until spinach is wilted and garlic is fragrant.
  3. Add marinara sauce.  Cook until the sauce is warmed through.  Place mixture into a ramekin.  Add the ricotta and meat, if you’re using them, and mix.  Crack the eggs over the top, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and black pepper. If you like your eggs a little runny, 10-15 minutes should do it.  If you like your eggs well done, bake for 15-20 minutes.

PhotoGrid_1392511727676Check out my Paleo board on Pinterest!

Honey Chipotle Salmon & Shrimp Ceviche Recipe

In today’s post, I’m sharing 2 fabulous paleo recipes.  I love to cook and being paleo again really brings out the chef in me.  When I’m trying to eat clean all the time, it’s really important that the food I eat be delicious.  Some people say that isn’t a good relationship to have with food because I should just be eating to live but I just can’t stick to a healthy eating plan that doesn’t satisfy my tastebuds.  So if you’re like me, follow along to see all the recipes I love to eat!

Honey Chipotle Salmon

You need:

  • a pound and a half of wild salmon filet
  • 1 can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce, gluten-free (or if you’re really strict, try coconut aminos)
  • zest of one orange
  • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  1. Combine the adobo sauce to taste (save the peppers for something else), honey, soy sauce, orange zest, orange juice, garlic, olive oil, half the cilantro in a glass container or ziptop bag.  Mix well.  Taste it to see if you want to add salt or more adobo sauce.  Add the salmon, making sure to fully cover the fish with your marinade.  Refrigerate for no less than 2 hours, up to 8 hours.  Shake/mix it periodically.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.  Remove salmon from your container, place it in a roasting pan.  Pour the marinade over the fish.  Roast for about 25-30 minutes or until it’s done enough for you.
  3. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro. Enjoy with some leafy greens, baked sweet potato, or sweet potato hash!  Yum.


Shrimp Ceviche

You need:

  • 1 pound of cleaned, deveined shrimp
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 small/medium tomatoes, diced
  • 1 mango, diced
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed, diced finely
  • 3/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1-2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add your shrimp and blanch for 2-3 minutes.  I like to do this but some people don’t.  It’s really up to you.  I think it improves the color and texture of the shrimp.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl.  Mix it up well.  Let it sit in the refrigerator at least 4 hours but overnight is better.
  3. Enjoy with some slices of avocado.  Make sure you get some of the juice on the avocado :)


The best part about both these dishes, besides the awesome amounts of protein, is that they get better as they sit in the fridge.  My lunch the next day was fantastic.  I was so satisfied and I definitely did not feel like I was “eating clean” even though I was.  I added a few thinly sliced sweet plantains that I cooked in a small amount of coconut oil and…yeah.  It was tasty.

PhotoGrid_1391522457184Check out my Paleo board on Pinterest!